We are overdue. The family home has been in need of a fresh coat of paint for a couple of years now. Busy schedules, weekend commitments, and an emphatic insistence that a week's vacation will not be devoted to the project led to the decision to get bids from some professional house painters.
Now, we're not talking about a country estate or a mini-mansion here. The house is just a typical, one-story suburban ranch with an attached two-car garage. Still, the lowest of the three bids was in excess of $4,000.
Why bring that up here? Because it helps put into perspective some government spending statistics provided by Barry LePatner, the subject of this month's Thought Leader Q&A. In his latest book, LePatner, who is an expert on infrastructure, engineering, and construction, notes that the federal government allocates roughly $2 billion a year for bridge maintenance. That amount has to be divvied up among nearly 600,000 bridges nationwide. Some quick math reveals that's just $3,500 per year per bridge. As I told LePatner during our interview, "I can't even get my house painted for that!"
For three decades, LePatner has been out sounding the alarm about the deteriorating condition of our nation's transportation infrastructure. As last year's Minneapolis bridge collapse made all too clear, he says, the system is now showing the effects of years of underfunding and neglect.And the problem is growing worse by the day. If we don't act now, he warns, it's only a matter of time before the same grim scenario plays out all over again.
LePatner is not alone in his assessment. At the annual NASSTRAC conference in April, Tom Donohue, who is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and former head of the American Trucking Associations, noted that anyone who thinks we still have plenty of time to address problems like highway congestion and deteriorating roads and bridges is sorely mistaken.
"Our national economy is roughly $12 trillion a year," he said. "It's projected that by 2018 it will reach $20 trillion.Unfortunately, somewhere between $12 trillion and $20 trillion, the economy is going to hit a wall, and that wall is an inadequate infrastructure."
The source of the problem, said Donahue, is politicians' general lack of interest in anything that doesn't have an immediate bearing on their chances for re-election. "If we woke up on a Monday morning and found that Social Security had broken down, Congress would jump into action and we'd have the problem fixed by Friday," he said. "We have a problem with our infrastructure that is just as critically important, yet it's taking years to get anything done about it."
So what do we do now? LePatner has some suggestions. He urges all Americans to get in touch with their local representatives to demand a list of the bridges in their districts that have been identified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Once they have those lists in hand, he says, they should insist that their representatives provide a full report on what they intend to do about those bridges during their current term in office. "Our politicians have forced us into the driver's seat," said LePatner in prepared remarks earlier this year. "We, the citizens, must insist that our infrastructure problems are made a national priority. End of story."
He may be onto something. Though we've known for decades that our infrastructure is a ticking time bomb, the government has yet to do anything about it. It's clear that the only way to get some traction is to make our politicians accountable for their failure to deal with the problem. It's long past the time for talk; it's time for action. We are overdue.